V.O. Machine Stands Trial in L.A.

Volume CV, No. 6June, 2005

Doug Caine

Doug Caine is a member of Local 47. He is also the special assistant to Hal Espinosa, the president of Local 47. This article originally appeared in Overture, the newspaper of Local 47, and was edited for Allegro.

My union — AFM Local 47 — is in the midst of a protracted and intricate arbitration process with the Pantages Theatre here in Los Angeles. We recently completed our first full day of hearings before the arbitrator and many more days will be required before the matter is concluded and a final decision is issued.

We filed several grievances against the Pantages for what we believe to be clear violations of our contract: in two productions last year, Pantages management replaced a number of Local 47 members with a mechanical device that Allegro readers already know as the virtual orchestra machine.

Realtime Music Solutions (referred to by some as the “Attempted Murderers of Live Music”) has been hawking this device for quite some time.

The employers who tried to use this machine (and the manufacturers who push it) lost battle after battle in New York last year.

This year, we have welcomed the presence and expertise of your president, David Lennon, onto our team and into our fight against this pernicious machine.

At stake here is not only the loss of jobs at a couple of shows last year. Quite simply, if management is successful in having the virtual orchestra machine described as a regular musical instrument played by a regular musician, then the validity and necessity of a real orchestra playing real music in real time can be called into question.

Union musicians are a fascinating hybrid. On one hand, we are professional business people. We negotiate and write contracts, we retain legal counsel, we prepare for our immediate and long-term goals by participating in our health plan and in the AFM pension plan. We calculate costs, we show up to rehearse and perform on time, we do a better job than anyone else, and we ensure that we are paid in a timely manner.

On the other hand, we are highly creative, artistically motivated, culturally aware and highly educated. We create art out of thin air, using only our skills, our souls and our instruments. As professional musicians, we are obligated to take into account not only the bottom line, profit-and-loss side of the equation, but we must hold fast to a transcendent artistic truth: the music we are called to perform was written to be played by those who have spent their lives perfecting our craft.

As musicians, our goal is to connect our own humanity with that of our audience. But this requires that actual, live musicians are involved. The music we perform was not written to be replicated by a computerized “Mr. Ed” with a software engineer in the saddle.

Every time musicians perform a great musical service, we also perform a great public service at the same time. And we are the only ones who can provide it. We are the only group of artists on the planet who open the window onto a living, breathing world of expression that leaps through the ears and into the hearts of an appreciative audience. How can a machine connect with the soul of a listener?

With this understanding, Locals 47 and 802 have joined forces against the employers and manufacturers who tried to eliminate live music on Broadway and, by extension, the rest of the country. These very same perpetrators are now attempting to attack live music in Los Angeles.

We are prosecuting the grievances Local 47 has brought against the Pantages not only to preserve the protections Local 47 musicians are guaranteed in the Pantages contract, but also because we feel it necessary to preserve, for the benefit of all professional musicians, the integrity of the words “professional musician” and “musical instrument.”

When they started pitching this curious device to employers, as the Local 802 strike against the Broadway producers became imminent, the manufacturers of the virtual orchestra machine touted it as a way to replace live musicians. They never even tried to give it a proper “musical” name.

Believe it or not, they are now trying to bestow upon it a distinction of the very thing it was created to destroy: a live musical instrument. As you may know, they have been calling it a “Sinfonia,” and they are trying to make the world believe it is simply a musical instrument.

The battle over the virtual orchestra machine with Pantages Theatre continues a national fight over the future of live music. The outcome of this fight will have repercussions for every professional musician and every theatregoer.